While Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry are gambling on new high-definition video formats and televisions, there may not be enough room in the Net's pipes or in the servers offering video streams to make HD videos, which can require twice as much broadband capacity as traditional videos, a regular part of the Internet viewing experience.
While that's hardly the end of the world for a site like YouTube.com, which is more concerned with streaming user-created content than anything coming out of Hollywood, it does present a dilemma for an organization like Major League Baseball's MLB.com , which already has more than 800,000 subscribers regularly watching games over the Net.
For now, the Internet-viewing public will have to be satisfied with watching live sporting and news events, or homemade movies presented on streaming sites like YouTube in formats offering slightly grainy images and sometimes-jerky motion. In fact, every industry expert interviewed for this story said that the way things stand now there just isn't enough bandwidth going into the home to stream the more expansive HD video.
"HD files tend to be too large to easily stream or download over typical American broadband connections," said Joe Laszlo, senior broadband analyst for Jupiter Research. "Our 1.5 megabyte connections are great for music, OK for lower-quality video but fairly unacceptable for HD video...I don't think we'll see a lot of HD content."
The typical Internet connection is 2 to 3 megabits per second, says Laszlo. The minimum needed to stream HD-quality video is 5mbps. Laszlo added that even if bandwidth were to be increased, computers with lower graphics processing power may be unable to display the richer details that HD provides.
That could mean a missed opportunity. In a report released Wednesday, the research firm IDC predicted Web video will generate $1.7 billion in annual sales by 2010, a 750 percent jump from sales this year. "Internet video services are on the brink of becoming a mainstream phenomenon in the United States," IDC said in the report.
The HD streaming problem is simple to understand. Imagine a pipe with liquid running through it. There is only so much room inside the pipe. In the case of broadband, the liquid is bits of information. The more video streaming over the Net, the more that pipe gets filled up--particularly as the pipe narrows on the final leg into the home.
In part, the "clogged pipe" issue is used by big telecommunications companies as they argue for some sort of tiered structure that would allow them to betteron their networks. Internet companies, on the other hand, argue that so-called Net neutrality laws are needed to ensure that all Internet traffic is treated equally.
"There's no denying it," says Michel Billard, president of Itiva, which is working on improving broadband efficiency. "As more video-on-demand companies continue to gobble up bandwidth, there isn't going to be enough to go around."